TikTok is not competing with Instagram, Facebook: Sameer Singh, ByteDance

In his first interview after taking over as VP Monetization for India, ByteDance, Sameer Singh talks about competing with social media platforms, TikTok’s brief ban, brand safety & monetization

e4m by Neeta Nair
Updated: Oct 30, 2019 8:08 PM


Sameer Singh

TikTok is one of the most downloaded apps in India, a market which accounts for a bulk of its 500 million-plus user base globally. But how often do you see rivals acknowledging that. Mark Zuckerberg in a video leaked earlier this month admitted to TikTok’s scale being bigger than that of Instagram in India. However, Sameer Singh, VP Monetization for India, ByteDance, in his first exclusive interview after taking over the new role calls Zuckerberg’s statement ‘incidental’. Let’s find out why.

In a conversation with exchange4media, Singh spoke on issues ranging from brand safety, TikTok’s brief ban in India and monetization.

What kind of opportunities do you have for advertisers on TikTok beyond the use of influencers?
Users today are receptive to Short-form, Influencer-Driven, Native and Co-Created content. Keeping this in mind, TikTok caters to diverse advertising needs which are critical for brands today. We have got very specific ad formats like Brand Takeover, In-feed Native Video and Brand Lens, which are resonating with all kinds of advertisers, be it for brand building or performance where they are looking for very specific ROI.

Then we have the ‘hashtag challenge’. Brands can integrate micro influencers on TikTok in their conversations if you want to make it native. We have various features which can work to the advantage of an advertiser like the Duet format which has been used well by Flipkart. Amitabh Bachchan is their brand ambassador. So a video was made which had Bachchan on one side speaking in his trademark style and this kid goes on the other side opening a gift box in the Flipkart colors saying “Bahot bada dhamaka hone wala hai”. So, now it looks like this unit has been actually created by Flipkart but it’s not.

If you give these users a chance to have a conversation with you rather than just be spoken to, they will take it to the next level. Our ‘hashtag challenge’ format has been used by brands like Clean and Clear and ITC Bingo.

As proven by the YouTube scandals in the past, the world’s largest advertisers are more than prepared to pull out or pause ad spends on a particular platform if they feel their ads are being shown next to inappropriate content. So what kind of safety measures do you have for the benefit of brands?
Among other things that we are doing, we have created two ‘packages’ called ‘premium content’ and ‘trending content’. So a brand can get associated with premium content which has gone through even more rounds of moderation or with content which is trending. In the latter’s case too we view it, moderate it and make sure that it fits the brand’s purpose. So how do you make sure that now despite it being an in-feed ad, it is starting to land up in places where content is semi-curated. So, those are areas where we are using a fair number of internal reporting tools, and doing a lot of active work with third parties to get them on the platform. What I really love about TikTok is that time spans are compressed, everything that would have taken a company years to do happens in bimonthly cycles out here. We have six planning cycles in a year. So, things just happen a lot faster including conversations with brands, with third parties. Nobody wants perfection, everybody wants progress. And that’s what we are indisputably sure about.

How difficult is it to bring back advertiser faith, especially after instances like the brief ban TikTok faced in India for not being able to control objectionable content on the platform?
I have seen the story play out many times in the past, in other organizations, in other parts of the world. I think what clients understand is that the very strength of digital is also probably an area where you need to watch out for, which is its tremendous scale and the amount of content that’s getting created. One of the things that advertisers are scared about the most is what are you doing to improve on a daily basis, and working towards taking it forward in that manner? I wasn’t in this company when that one-week ban happened but what I do know is the amount of interest that it generated among users, and if I can bet, from a download perspective it may have helped, I don’t know for sure though.

Are you saying that the ban actually helped increase the downloads for the app?
Clients are interested in knowing if fundamentally you are a safe platform, are you doing the right things? What systems do you have in place that minimize inappropriate content? And how do you help me as a brand to have relevant and appropriate conversations. If you are talking about a platform like this or any one of the large platforms with a few 100 million users, with a few billion views a day, then it’s really about making sure that the system is geared towards doing the right thing. And that’s really the conversation that happens with an advertiser.

But you did not face any problem with the advertisers when that happened?
I don’t know, it was before my time.

What kind of growth rate are you seeing right now in user base as well as advertising?
We have got 200 million app downloads in India and are growing at a rapid pace with 120 Monthly Active Users. On the advertising side, from a monetization team perspective, I am hiring like crazy. My hiring is always behind my needs. And that is a reflection of the conversations that clients want to have with us, and partner with us.

Recently Mark Zuckerberg in the leaked video agreed to TikTok having exceeded Instagram’s scale in India… what gives you an edge over others like Sharechat and Facebook’s Lasso?
For me what Mark Zuckerberg said was incidental. For 10 seconds I personally felt good that they recognize us as competition. But what I really was intrigued by was what the journalist said, that Facebook would want to compete with TikTok but actually cannot. The reason for that is - the DNA of platforms like Facebook and Instagram is users creating stories from their daily lives and sharing it with people that they know like ‘Hey, this is my lunch’, ‘This is where I went in the evening’. TikTok is a very different platform that brings out the inner child in you. It lets you create content which expresses yourself rather than sharing your daily moments. So, we are looking at two very different user behaviors. And that is why I agree that Facebook, Instagram and TikTok don’t compete with each other.

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